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To War With The Bays: 16 - Close Leaguer

...Then our tank was hit.

When your tank is hit you have two options: one is to sit tight, the other to bale out. Both are dangerous. The tank is liable to catch fire and, with all the petrol and ammunition on board, could blow up. To bale out is to risk being machine-gunned, something the Germans often did.

We didn't stop to think. We baled out, ran and dived behind a small ridge, held our breath and laid low...

Jack Merewood sees his first action in the North African desert against the Germans - and is quickly made aware of the grim realities of war.

To read earlier chapters of Jack's vividly-remembered story please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

Usually when we were on the move, and always when in action, we went into close leaguer at night. If we were fighting, we would pull back about four miles from the front line. Close leaguer meant all the tanks forming a square, close together. Then we'd replenish our supplies from wagons bringing ammunition and petrol, rations and water. We were allowed four pints of water each a day, so would fill our water cans from taps on the wagon.

On 22 January we close leaguered about ten miles from the enemy, and the next day we were to see our first action against the Germans. My diary for that day says: 'Set off from close leaguer at 6.30 a.m. No time for breakfast. Searched round for enemy all day, then towards evening saw him disappearing over a ridge in front of us. We were shelled, and the Squadron Leader's tank was hit. We picked up the crew who had bailed out, and withdrew.'

The following day we were in action again, and this time took the initiative and succeeded in pushing the Germans back. We took some prisoners too they were taken care of by the infantry who were always with us. All the different infantry units who fought alongside us were, without exception, good fighters.

On this occasion it was the 4th Indian Division. The infantrymen always said they would much rather be out on the ground than in a tank; we in the tanks felt the opposite. We also had the support of the artillery, who often fired their shells over the top of us.

For two or three days we were in and out of some sporadic fighting. We tank crews rarely knew what the plans were. We would move towards the Germans, engage them, perhaps knock out antitank guns, or machine-gun troops and lorries.

Then our tank was hit.

When your tank is hit you have two options: one is to sit tight, the other to bale out. Both are dangerous. The tank is liable to catch fire and, with all the petrol and ammunition on board, could blow up. To bale out is to risk being machine-gunned, something the Germans often did.

We didn't stop to think. We baled out, ran and dived behind a small ridge, held our breath and laid low. Captain Patchett had run in a different direction and we didn't see him. We waited a while, the Germans withdrew, so Jim, Les and I decided to go back and see if we could find the tank. When we found it, a tank from No. 2 Troop, commanded by Corporal Freddie Minks, was towing it. It wasn't badly damaged and Jim did some work on the engine and got it started.

So next day we went into action again - and were involved in a terrific battle, our heaviest fighting yet. Things were going well. We had come across some vehicles and infantry a few hundred yards away, and were shelling and pouring machine-gun fire into them. We really sorted them out and had their soldiers frantically running in every direction, but then German Mark 4 tanks turned up.

Our tanks were no match for them: their armour was thicker and they had bigger guns with a much longer range than ours. We returned their fire but with our 37 mm and two-pounders we just couldn't reach them. We tried to hold our ground but it was an impossible task, and as the light began to fade we were forced to withdraw.

We suffered our first casualties here. When we pulled back, our tank stopped beside Freddie Minks's Stuart. Freddie had been killed. His crew got him out of the tank, and he was a sickening sight. Most of his head had been blown away. We wrapped him in a blanket, dug a grave and buried him. Captain Tatham-Warter read a short service over the grave. Another man called Young had also been killed when another Stuart was hit.

We were all required to wear a cord around our necks. On it were two hard Bakelite identification tags, one green and one red. If a man was killed, one of the tags was left with his body, and the other returned to the regimental base, citing where the man was buried. In the case of Freddie, this was taken care of by Captain Tatham-Warter, who was later himself killed at the Battle of El Alamein.

One department of the Army took care of graves, and it was their unenviable task to exhume bodies and give them a proper burial in army cemeteries.

We marked Freddie's grave with a pile of stones. I wonder if it was ever found.

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